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Take a Drive through Virginia

15 Even when we take long weekends, my wife, Barbara, and I go for the glam: Paris, London, the Caribbean. On past trips to Monticello and Mount Vernon, we've stayed at the Washington, D.C., Ritz-Carlton and dined at the Jockey Club. But we also share a passion for history, so when I told Barbara I was harboring the urge to see where George Washington's cherry tree supposedly stood, I wasn't surprised that she agreed—even though she'd wondered a bit when I went on-line just after September 11 looking to buy a Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flag, a bright yellow banner emblazoned with a coiled snake and the motto DON'T TREAD ON ME.

Much as I'd wanted that flag, she, with her taste for Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival architecture, wanted to see the College of William & Mary and other great houses in which America was born. So, driven by patriotism, pride, and the desire to know as much about our backyard as we did about Louis XIV's, we decided to visit Virginia, the land of the Founding Fathers. It turned out we weren't alone: business at the country's landmarks is booming. Visits to Mount Rushmore were up 14 percent last year; at the Washington Monument, tickets are selling out days in advance. (integral)

We start off in Fredericksburg, which celebrates its 275th anniversary this year, then continue down Route 3, also known as the Historyland Highway. The road more than lives up to its name as it winds past pre-Revolutionary churches and farms where the earliest settlers grew wheat, corn, and tobacco. Virginia's Northern Neck, a skinny finger of land between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers that points into Chesapeake Bay, has as many historical markers as there are subway stops in our hometown, Manhattan.

The drive from New York to Virginia on superhighways was easy but dull, a reminder of how much of the United States is a generic, paved-over paradise lost to progress. But seconds after turning off the interstate into Fredericksburg, we entered another world—a 40-square-block district full of 18th- and early-19th-century buildings. Fredericksburg hugs the banks of the Rappahannock, whichonce ran so wide and deep that in 1728, the town was the center of the tobacco trade. Today, with the port gone and the narrower river more suited for strolling than shipping, Fredericksburg seems like a living exhibit. Nothing was missing but the men in powdered wigs and buckled shoes (and we'd be seeing them soon enough).

After checking into the Richard Johnston Inn, a 1754 town house built by a signer of the Declaration of Independence, we happened upon a store that sold military memorabilia, where I finally found a miniature version of that elusive Gadsden flag for $3. Then we went to Hugh Mercer Apothecary, a reconstructed Colonial-era pharmacy complete with leeches, brimstone, and Spanish blister beetles. Barbara looked at me as if I were nuts when I said I was sad they weren't actually for sale. Next we visited the Rising Sun Tavern, built in the 1760's by George Washington's youngest brother. At both places, costumed guides provided historical factoids. The apothecary guide explained "medical" processes like cupping (placing a heated cup over a wound to draw blood). At the Tavern, which no longer serves alcohol, we learned the apocryphal origins of words and phrases like bartender ("they hid behind bars in a cage with their best bottles") and mind your p's and q's (a warning to the bartender not to confuse pints with quarts when totaling a drinker's tab).

Driving east out of town later, we came to Ferry Farm, Washington's boyhood plantation and the setting for such tall tales as the one about his chopping down the cherry tree. Of course, the famous tree—if it ever really existed—is gone; unfortunately, so is the rest of the farm. The only original thing still here is a cellar. Farther down the road, about 40 miles east of Fredericksburg, is the national memorial that was built near the site of Washington's birthplace. George'sfather built a house there on 1,000 acres overlooking the Potomac. Washington visited for the last time in 1771; the place was marked as a memorial in 1815 by his adopted grandson. It had apparently burned down in the interim. What remains today is the foundation. Another disappointment.

Our next stop off the Historyland Highway was Irvington, a tiny town studded with flags and white clapboard houses. On a southeastern fork of the Neck best known for its inns, hotels, marinas, and golf courses, it seemed a great base from which to explore Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William & Mary, 90 minutes away. Barbara and I had had enough of lengthy tours and actors playing colonials in Fredericksburg, so at Williamsburg we stuck to exploring the meticulously restored original houses of both the highborn and the common. What struck me most was their proximity to each other: the tidy but rambling wood house of colonial kingpin Peyton Randolph, one of the richest men in town, was just a few steps from one of the poorest houses —shacks, really. Even mattresses where slaves slept were stacked right outside the bedrooms of their owners. That juxtaposition, more than the uncanny time-machine aspect of America's most famous historical theme park, was the prime attraction for us in Williamsburg. Americans put their shame on display along with their successes, hoping to learn from prejudice as well as pride.

Even so, the long lines, earnest tour guides, and pedestrian meals at food stalls soon proved wearying. We briefly walked in the footsteps of the young Thomas Jefferson, across the lush green lawns of the College of William & Mary just up the road, but soon retrieved our car, recrossed several bridges, and emerged from the forest that surrounds Williamsburg into a flatter, marshy landscape with views over Chesapeake Bay. There was something wild and free about the sudden, insistent presence of all that water, and we tried to imagine what it looked like 250 years before, when there were no cars or bridges or motors and the bay was silent and filled with sails.

At the end of the Colonial Parkway—the road that links Jamestown, Williamsburg, and the Yorktown Revolutionary War battlefield—we decided we had to make one more stop. But when we pulled into the dramatic site overlooking the York River where the American Revolution was won, a Civil War re-creation was in full swing, so we left quickly. The history lessons were over. We spent our last full day on the Northern Neck, relaxing at the Tides Inn, a recently renovated 106-room hotel with a grand dining room perched over the water, and taking a boat out on placid Carters Creek.

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